I review Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.
So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.
This is the story of how I disappeared.
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.
Played out against the snowy landscape of coastal New England in the days leading up to Christmas, young Eileen’s story is told from the gimlet-eyed perspective of the now much older narrator. Creepy, mesmerizing, and sublimely funny, in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and early Vladimir Nabokov, this powerful debut novel enthralls and shocks, and introduces one of the most original new voices in contemporary literature.
Reading Eileen was like stepping into a Stephen King novel. Maybe it’s unfair to compare authors, but Moshfegh has that unique ability to transport you to a different time, a different place, and almost turn you into a character in her story. Moshfegh makes you complicit.
Eileen is dark and terrifying, in that real life, true crime kind of way. You can believe it, you can relate, even if Eileen herself is odd. We’ve all been odd in one way or another, at one stage of our lives. With a disturbed relationship with her father, an ambivalent attitude towards hygiene and nutrition, and the elevated self-obsession that you’d expect to find in a teenager, rather than a 20-something, Eileen is easily led, desperate for a friend, for something to happen.
Nothing seems to happen in Eileen’s life – other than the cycle of abuse, neglect, anger – until in strolls Rebecca, beautiful and talented and clever, and open to Eileen’s affections. And Eileen’s obsession.
There’s a dark, sexual undertone to this book. The implication that their father sexually abused Eileen’s wild, prettier sister; her parents prodding and poking her, making fun of her body as she grew up; Eileen’s daydreams about Randy, and her shame of masturbation and menstruation. She clearly suffers from body dysmorphia, and she’s obsessed with her body and her looks. Her fear and shame and disregard for not only others, but also herself, her own health and lifestyle, creates this fog of misery around her. Eileen’s character is rich and unstable, unreliable and perfectly imperfect. She’s terrifying because she’s all of us, none of us, our worst nightmare. She’s what any of us could become in the wrong circumstances; she’s the mirror held up to our deepest, darkest thoughts. Eileen is truly brought to life with Moshfegh’s rich and detailed prose.
What happens with Rebecca is thrilling, terrifying. I don’t want to give it away, but I will say that it will electrify you. Moshfegh is a superb writer. It’s no wonder she’s being hailed as one of the brightest new voices in fiction.